Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Beggars, homeless and Delhi's slums 'disappear'

TENS OF thousands of beggars, homeless people and daily wage earners have either fled India’s capital New Delhi or been hounded out of the city ahead of the troubled Commonwealth Games that open there on Sunday.

Armies of hawkers who for years have zig-zagged through the traffic selling magazines, mobile phone accessories, pens, balloons and even elaborate sculptures have disappeared overnight without explanation.

An unknown number of labourers, the majority without identification papers – only a tiny number of Indians have them – have been coerced by police and local officials into leaving Delhi or staying at home, under threat of arrest and imprisonment on a raft of nebulous Victorian-era charges such as vagrancy and loitering.

“I have been unemployed for the past month because of the games and opted to return to my village in Uttar Pradesh province, as there is a good chance I might be arrested even if I move around the city,” said Subhash Gupta, a painter and whitewasher.

The games have ensured that the poor get further trampled upon, he lamented, dismissing the event as a “curse”.

Mr Gupta also claimed that Indian Rail was “actively conniving” in this mass exodus from the city by turning a Nelson’s eye to ticketless travellers, an allegation that could not be confirmed.

Delhi’s more than 1.4 million homeless people have simply vanished, presenting an image of a prosperous city with no indigent underbelly to the visitors from 71 Commonwealth nations.

“If I was poor I would abuse the games,” said retired Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal.

“I am not [poor] but I still find no merit in them and the chaotic and wasteful preparations that have gone into making them happen.”

Delhi’s slums, which comprise about 30 per cent of the city, have either been hidden behind massive hoardings announcing the games or ringed by hastily planted bushes, most of which were already wilting yesterday.

Open sewers alongside newly constructed roads and facilities for the games have been similarly disguised, but little has been done about the fetid odour they emit.

And a posse of urban cowboys have managed to rid the city, or at least the parts associated with the games, of hundreds of cows that routinely squat proprietorially on roads, causing traffic chaos and, often, accidents.

Over decades there was little effort to rid the city of the animals – as many were owned by professional wrestlers whom few wanted to tangle with – and because numerous neighbourhoods were content with the easy availability of cheap milk at their doorstep.

The capital’s well-heeled have opted to holiday abroad until the games end on October 14th, as all the city’s educational institutions will remain closed.

Severe traffic and security restrictions aimed at smoothing the movement of Commonwealth athletes and officials will ensure attendance at most workplaces remains low during the sporting event, making it the ideal opportunity for a holiday.

Billed as an economically resurgent India’s coming out party, the Games’ organisers – beset by problems such as security, unfinished stadia and unhygienic and shoddy accommodation for athletes – are bent on presenting a rosy, but unreal portrayal of Delhi.

“The games were meant to be a participatory event for the city, one to be enjoyed,” said university lecturer Neelkamal Puri. Instead, they had ended up being antagonistic, restrictive and anything but fun, she added.

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